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Ask Gregg Popovich the secrets to the San Antonio Spurs sustained success on any given day and you’re likely to get one of two answers. On most days Popovich will simply flash that condescending gaze, staring daggers into your soul until you find yourself apologizing for wasting his time with such a stupid question.

Find Popovich in a good mood, however, and he will likely admit that everything he and general manager R.C. Buford have built comes down to two important things—luck, and not screwing things up.

Gregg Popovich

(Photo Bob Owen/San Antonio Express-News)

It was luck to have landed the top pick in the right draft and selecting Tim Duncan. There was luck in finding some pieces around them, and beyond that, it’s been a matter of simply not screwing things up (harder than it sounds). For an example of just how difficult it can be, you can read Andrew Sharp’s article on Grantland today.

On Sunday, Popovich and the Spurs will square off against their polar opposites. If the San Antonio Spurs are the NBA’s model franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies are the greatest worst assembled team in NBA history.

The Memphis Grizzlies are, perhaps, the luckiest team in the NBA right now, which fits perfectly into the first part of Popovich’s formula to success. It’s the “don’t screw up” part that the Grizzlies astonishingly seem to ignore with almost no negative repercussions. The Memphis Grizzlies have screwed up, regularly, repeatedly, and royally.

And yet no one can deny how fun and legitimately imposing these Grizzlies are as we get ready for the Western Conference Finals.

To start with, the Grizzlies core of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol was created from a series of inexplicably horrible-to-laughable moves that, somehow, ALL MANAGED TO WORK OUT FOR THE BEST DESPITE LOGIC AND EVERYONE’S BELIEFS TO THE CONTRARY!!!

Gasol Conley Randolph Allen

(Photo by Nikki Boertman/Commercial Appeal)

Even one of their earliest terrible trades, sending a pick to Detroit that would become the no. 2 overall pick in what would eventually be known as the Miami Heat draft, worked out in that it saved the Grizzlies the pain of drafting Darko Milicic.

(The Grizzlies would eventually trade Darko to the Knicks for Quentin Richardson, who they then flipped for Zach Randolph, meaning….EVEN SOMETHING AS HORRIBLE AS ACQUIRING DARKO MILIC WORKED OUT FOR THE GRIZZLIES!)

From 2008 through today the Grizzlies have made some of the more puzzling moves in the NBA, and yet every single one of them has led them here, to the Western Conference Finals.

The Gasol(s) Trade

 Frame your arguments however you’d like in the comments sections or on Twitter (and I hope you do), but no amount of hindsight can hide that, at the time, trading Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for scraps was amongst the most lopsided trades in NBA history.

Yes, the Grizzlies were in a position where trading Pau Gasol was a must, but he was a franchise-quality big man who immediately transformed the Lakers into NBA champions (after failing in the NBA Finals his first half season there, of course). In exchange the Grizzlies eventually received cap space in Kwame Brown’s expiring contract, Javaris Crittenton, and two late first round draft picks, as well as the rights to Marc Gasol.

Pau and the Lakers have since faded, and Marc is the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year and in contention for mantle of game’s best big man. But absolutely no one knew Marc Gasol would develop into THIS, and anyone who would tell you otherwise is a liar.

Michael Heisley

(Photo by Mike Brown/Commercial Appeal)

In an interview with Yahoo!’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley referred to the Grizzlies assets as cap space. Though he didn’t regret the trade, he did wonder if his team got the best value possible:

“I don’t know if I got the most value,” Heisley confessed. “Maybe our people should’ve shopped (Gasol) more and maybe we would’ve gotten more, done a better deal. Maybe Chris did call every team in the league. I don’t think he did, but maybe he should’ve…”

Heisley didn’t mention Marc Gasol in the interview, no one did. The last time most people saw the younger Gasol was as a pudgy high school center with limited prospects.

It’s okay to admit that, even with the way things turned out, this was a bad trade turned positive purely by fortune in the same way that Popovich and Buford admit that finding Manu Ginobili had little to do with their scouting staff and everything to do with luck. As Popovich has said repeatedly, if they knew how things would turn out, they wouldn’t have waited so long to take him.

The Zach Randolph Trade

With the cap space vacated by the Pau Gasol trade, the Grizzlies swung a deal to acquire Zach Randolph, solidifying what would eventually be the Grizzlies devastating frontline. But at the time Randolph was a cautionary tale, though admittedly a talented one. Nothing in his stops in Portland, New York, or Los Angeles revealed any signs of hope, and certainly no rational basketball mind would have traded Pau Gasol for Randolph straight-up, which is what appeared to be the case at the time.

But few, even amongst Memphis fans, could have predicted the connection the city would have with Randolph and how that would change him. Though I have no proof, I feel confident in saying that Randolph in a Grizzlies uniform doesn’t work in Vancouver—which as a side note, was another Grizzlies move widely panned (moving from Vancouver to NBA’s smallest market) that worked out wonderfully for the NBA (see how these moves are all connected?). Randolph, along with Tony Allen, embraced Memphis’ blue collar work ethic, which became the culture by which this team operates.

It is, perhaps, the only location in the NBA where this roster could thrive, and that stands as a testament to the city and its wonderful fans.

The Mike Conley extension

Mike Conley was the no. 4 overall pick in the draft, so there were some expectations in place for him to succeed. But headed to the end of his rookie contract Conley was seriously underperforming relative to those expectations.

When the Memphis Grizzlies announced Conley’s contract extension it prompted CBS blogger and huge Grizzlies enthusiast Matt Moore to write a column with the headline: GRIZZLIES COMMIT FRANCHISE SUICIDE, EXTEND CONLEY. The post has since been removed, but the sentiment was the same everywhere and I’ll refer you to Kelly Dwyer’s post over at Yahoo!’s Ball Don’t Lie, who touches on Moore’s column:

“Bidding against absolutely nobody, they signed Conley to a deal that will have him making eight figures over the last couple years of its existence. That alone should make your hair stand on end. And as Moore pointed out, there is absolutely nothing in Conley’s game nor at-best potential that should allow for anyone to think that he should even approach an average salary, something that would pay him about half of what he’s due to make in a few years.”

That albatross of a contract appears to be a bargain now, and that Conley against Tony Parker no longer seems like an overwhelming mismatch speaks of how much Conley has grown since receiving his contract. And if the Grizzlies had faith in anything, perhaps it was his work ethic and the team’s culture, but those aren’t tangible qualities that would have had them competing with suitors for Conley at that price.

(Photo by Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports)

And the rest of the horrible, terrible, no good, very bad decisions…

Every front office makes a mistake or two, or three. Often times just one of these can cripple a franchise for years to come. And yet, the Grizzlies have made some of the most questionable moves this side of David Kahn. And they’ve thrived.

Trading Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo (which admittedly looks a lot worse now than it did then), picking Hasheem Thabeet with the no. 2 overall pick in a draft with James Harden, Ricky Rubio, and Stephen Curry still available (if it’s any consolation, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets at the beginning of the season, making it two teams that have kept Thabeet over Harden).

Teams that pass up or trade even one franchise player—and from the looks of it Curry and Harden appear to be as much while Rubio looks to be, at the very least, special—aren’t supposed to contend for championships. They’re supposed to turn into the Milwaukee Bucks of the world, trading the draft rights to Dirk Nowitzki for rotation filler and wondering the desert of mediocrity for the next decade as penance.

And yet here are the Grizzlies in spite of all this. Hell, maybe even because of it. Maybe there’s something to an island of misfit toys that no one else wanted finding sanctity in each other and in a city the NBA underestimated.

Rubio and love never made the playoffs while Harden was eliminated in the first round by the team that had Thabeet. Stephen Curry and the Warriors were eliminated by the very Spurs the Grizzlies will be playing, coached by a man who publicly called into question the sanity of the trade that ignited everything the Grizzlies have built today. A trade that helped Memphis upset these Spurs just two years earlier in the first round.

I’m not sure what to make of this other than great things often come from humble beginnings. Going back to 2008, the Memphis rebuilding plan made about as much sense as investing in lottery tickets, right down to the odds for success.

And yet, here are your Memphis Grizzlies, gritting and grinding and generally living life as the greatest team that was ever poorly constructed. Everyone questioned how they got here, but no one denies that they’ve arrived.

Jesse Blanchard writes for Project Spurs and ESPN San Antonio. You can find him on Twitter at @blanchardJRB.

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12 Responses to The Greatest Worst Assembled Team in NBA History

  1. stukeyx2No Gravatar says:

    In case you are interested in more about the Mat Moore rant you might wanna read his twitter rant. And by that I mean, READ THIS TWITTER RANT! http://hponconley.tumblr.com/post/1459577525/for-posterity

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  3. dcgrizzNo Gravatar says:

    Most of this is just wrong. The ZBo signing was brilliant, especially given the limited downside it offered via only 2 years left on his deal. Also, his bad behavior had not been an issue for a couple years but he was still saddled with the baggage, despite clearly a very high level of talent. The Conley contract was only ridiculed by people that clearly had not watched the Grizz and his steady development closely. Just because you thought it was dumb doesn’t mean it was … I mean you obviously don’t watch the Grizz so why would you think that you’re capable of making this kind of judgment? The Gasol trade was definitely not an equal value return, but 1) we had to trade him (you at least acknowledge this when most dont) 2) the league knew this so we had little leverage, 3) cap space in itself was an adequate return given the size and length of his contract, and 4) you are again ignorant in your dismissal of Chris Wallace’s insight into Marc’s potential value. He was a budding star in Spain and the Grizz were far closer to his potential than anyone bc of his Memphis ties. He wasn’t the centerpiece by any means but there’s a reason we demanded he be included.

    You also fail to acknowledge the good moves: TA, Bayless, Gay trade, etc. So, all in all, a well-written but highly ignorant article. Not unlike most of the day late sports media, just because you weren’t smart or informed enough to acknowledge smart moves ex-ante, doesn’t mean the Grizz management weren’t.

    • Red ColemanNo Gravatar says:

      dcgrizz,
      Do I follow the Grizzlies closely? Do I have my finger on the pulse of the organization and the fans? Because I think Jesse’s article is spot-on to what the prevailing opinions were AT THE TIME of the moves.

      Hindsight is 20/20. Very few people, including some within the Grizzlies’ organization itself, thought that these moves would work out the way that it has. ZBo was a malcontent; TA was an inconsistent defense-only player; Conley was all promise and potential, but very little actual production; Marc was an out-of-shape 2nd round project. Those were the “facts” as most people who followed the NBA saw them a few years ago. All of these players have evolved since then, but that doesn’t change what the perception was at the time. Jesse acknowledges that these players have matured and gelled into a terrifyingly cohesive unit worthy of being called a title contender, despite the odds — that is the reality now. So, I think you’re being unfair with your remarks about his knowledge and analysis.

      • dcgrizzNo Gravatar says:

        That’s why “prevailing opinions” make for terrible prognostication. The consensus is almost always wrong. My point is that calling the current status a product a blind luck is ignorant of the reality that a small market team which is largely undesirable to consensus attractive free agents (one of the primary means of acquiring) has to take calculated risks. The fact that many of these risks worked out is not a product of luck, but a product of unconventional thinking and thoughtful calculation. Prevailing opinions and consensus thinking is at best a recipe for mediocrity. And mediocre thinkers look back on risk and say “luck” while investors look at risk and say return.

        • Red ColemanNo Gravatar says:

          “The consensus is almost always wrong.”

          That’s a very interesting statement to make.

          I think you’re taking this article a little too seriously, since in actuality, it is a tongue-in-cheek remark on how things can work out in the end, despite no evidence that it should. Going off of the premise of involvement of players like pre-Memphis ZBo and Darko, the unmentioned Allen Iverson experiment, relying on projects like Conley and Gasol, the wholly mercurial nature of Tony Allen, the unproven track record of Lionel Hollins as a head coach, and the abysmal draft results — it isn’t far-fetched to say that luck played a part in this organization’s rise from cellar dweller to WCF participant.

          Plenty of teams take risks (calculated or not) and find themselves mired in mediocrity for years. There is no singular “right way” to build a team, but there are several proven wrong ways. The Grizzlies have bucked that trend by taking risks that have paid off, while distancing themselves from the ones that did not work out.

          • dcgrizzNo Gravatar says:

            Look, obviously a lot of these decisions turned out really well for the Grizz – no doubt. Is that “luck” … Some of course, but it’s a lot more attributable to savvy and non-consensus thinking than luck in my view. Investment (and make no mistake, building a team is investing) is the art of picking assets that the market (consensus) is undervaluing/disregarding. The assertion that “the Grizzlies core … was created from a series of inexplicably horrible-to-laughable moves that ALL WORK OUT FOR THE BEST DESPITE LOGIC AND EVERYONE’S BELIEFS TO THE CONTRARY!!!” is insulting to the grizzlies organization but is just proof that “everyone” is not a great indicator of future success. I for one am a little tired of this “grizzlies are so dumb but everything broke their way” conformist, condescending, disrespect.

            All of the negatives you point out about individual players have and had huge counter arguments but the consensus is always fearful of unconventional methods. There were a lot of Grizz fans that thought most of these moves were very shrewd at the time.

            I give credit where it’s due, and the Grizz front office is due a lot of credit for building this team with minimal resources … sure, a bunch of their risks bombed out (note: Thabust lies solely at Heisley’s feet, not Chris Wallace) but without question, the aggregate of their risks has paid off huge, and it’s asinine and an insult to Memphis to assert that luck was the only factor. The fact that a lot of these moves worked out validates the foresight of the front office and rigorous, coordinated execution of a plan, not that we just threw a bunch of darts that happened to hit.

            Go Grizz! I can’t wait to watch our “poorly constructed” but decidedly Memphian team lay the lumber on the completely admirable, but irritatingly smug, “model franchise.”

          • dcgrizzNo Gravatar says:

            And for the record, I get that this is a tongue in cheek article, it is well-written and generally complimentary of the Grizz and fans, I just disagree strongly with the premise. And who doesn’t like a little debate on the eve of the biggest series in our history!?

        • BlanchardJRBNo Gravatar says:

          Every bit of success is determined by some amount of luck. I didn’t mention this in the article, and perhaps should have, but it’s also sustained by a large amount of hard work to capitalize when you do catch a break.

          It doesn’t matter how the Grizzlies core came together or who gets credit for it. It exists now and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere. To say it was luck to some extent doesn’t discredit the amount of work or investment that have been put in by the players, ownership, and fans.

    • BlanchardJRBNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks for the read and the feedback.

      This was intended to be, to some extent, a tongue-in-cheek bit. I do stand by my analysis of the general consensus at the time and what there was to go on at the time each decision was made.

      The player Marc Gasol developed into was luck. But so what? So was Manu Ginobili. The Spurs scouting and development staff had nothing to do with Manu other than buying a lottery ticket during the draft. Popovich would be the first to admit this.

      So here’s the deal. Don’t let that statement anger you. Because, yeah, Gasol was luck. But he’s here. And Lionel Hollins and the Grizzlies have been spot-on in how they use him and have assembled their lineups around him. There’s credit to be given for that.

      Mike Conley, perhaps there was something to be said for what the team saw in him at practice or during summers compared to what we saw during games. But my criticism of that deal wouldn’t be of Conley himself (others did that, I didn’t see enough) but the process by which they signed him. There was no market for Conley that warranted that type of contract. but, again, he’s here and it worked and the team could have just as easily stayed with Kyle Lowry. So there’s more fortunate the team hasn’t messed up.

      Randolph was Randolph. I credit his bond with the city and the culture of the team for what he’s done. It’s a rare feat, but it’s not unheard of. And Memphis deserves credit for how they embraced him when no one else would. And perhaps that alone has set the tone for this franchise.

  4. Red ColemanNo Gravatar says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, what you just witnessed was a reasonable, well-versed debate. No namecalling or insults levied. I salute you, dcgrizz, and thank you for your thoughts on the matter.

    Go Grizz!

  5. donquixoteNo Gravatar says:

    I think the Pau deal needed to be made. Even though Marc was 48th pick the amount Grizz had to pay for him to get from Barcelona was higher than many first rounders. So it was not a fluke trade even though it looked bad to everyone outside as a bad trade

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